The Northwestern Wildcats have concluded their 2019 spring practices. And for this season they opted to have an extended practice session in lieu of a spring game at Ryan Field. This also was the first spring practice session to be held at Ryan Fieldhouse, which opened last summer. And there is plenty of excitement and anticipation in the air as the Wildcats are coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history. But there are three questions that Northwestern needs to answer in 2019.
Can they overcome the talent losses from last season? Can they repeat as Big Ten West champions? And can they win the conference title and beyond? Spring football is the first major step towards answering those questions as the Wildcats are very optimistic for this year. Here are three observations from this year's spring practices.
1. The Wildcats won't name a starting quarterback just yet
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald says that it's an open competition amongst all five signal-callers on the roster but in reality, it'll come down to just two players, Hunter Johnson and TJ Green. Johnson is the prized transfer from Clemson who was part of an ACC championship team in 2017, while Green saw limited playing time in the early stages of last season as Clayton Thorson was on a "pitch count" in his return from a torn ACL. Johnson is the favorite to win the job based on his talent and skill set, but Green has the most familiarity with this Wildcat offense. While this isn't exactly a position battle, a starter won't be named until the beginning of fall camp at the earliest.
2. The Wildcats accomplished a lot on the field despite not having a formal spring game
Not playing a spring game is becoming a little more common in college football, but that doesn't mean that work isn't being done on the field. In the case of Northwestern; they're getting a headstart on preparing the new starting quarterback (whomever that may be), they're getting the new players acclimated to the system, they're evaluating who will replace last year's departed starters, adding new wrinkles to the playbook, getting everyone back into football shape after not playing since December, and building chemistry among teammates. While a spring game would have been nice, Northwestern is proof that there are other effective ways to prepare a team.
3. Northwestern returns multiple players from last season
Despite losing key players to either the NFL draft, graduation, or other reasons (rising junior superback Cameron Green retired from football in February due to injury issues), the Wildcats will have plenty of guys back from last year's 9-5 team. Some of those include running back Isaiah Bowser, wide receiver Riley Lees, superback Trey Pugh, offensive lineman Jared Thomas, defensive end Joe Gaziano, linebacker Paddy Fisher, and defensive back J.R. Pace, with the expectation that some new faces will step up as well. Even though the Wildcats have lost some of their program's greatest players over the last couple of offseasons, Fitzgerald and his coaching staff manage to keep the pipeline of talent flowing.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)